Community members speak out for a chance to save historic Germantown YWCA building

 Attendees lined up to ask questions. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)t

Attendees lined up to ask questions. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)t

On Thursday night, a large crowd of concerned locals filled the nave of the First 
United Methodist Church of Germantown (FUMCOG) for the chance to speak up about the old YWCA building that borders Vernon Park. 

Germantown United CDC (GUCDC) board president Garlen Capita said it was the first chance neighbors have had to publicly talk about the controversy unfolding at the crumbling but well-loved building at 5820-24 Germantown Avenue.

After word got out about two weeks ago that the historic site, now owned by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority (PRA), may be facing demolition, neighbors came out in droves to the meeting convened by GUCDC, Germantown Community Connection and other partners.

An important building

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Delaware Valley College historian Dr. Craig Stutman offered some background on the history of the site that many Germantowners remember as the heartbeat of family activities in the neighborhood.

While the YWCA in Germantown got its start in 1869, the building in question wasn’t built until 1914. And yes, as some audience members were quick to point out, it started out as a racially-segregated institution with two branches.

“It was an exceptional relationship, but it was a segregated relationship,” Stutman said.

He called the original YWCAs’ “interracial and interfaith solidarity” a key point of its early history, especially since the pool at the formerly all-white 5820 location was opened up to people of all races in the 1940s, far ahead of integration in other parts of the country.

“This is a very important building to the community,” said Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass, in her own speech to the crowd.

What happened next?

Brian Abernathy, PRA’s executive director, helped fill in the site’s more recent history. It was owned by the YMCA until 2006, when Germantown Settlement purchased it. Their plans for the site fell through and the vacant building, suffering from multiple fires and repeated vandalism, met with steep decline.

Abernathy said that in 2013, he made the decision (against his staff’s recommendation) to take the blighted property to sheriff’s sale, so that the PRA could acquire it for a last chance at rehabilitation.

In September, the PRA put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) and Abernathy said that a dozen potential developers toured the site. According to Abernathy, the PRA’s RFP specified that non-subsidized housing would be given preference in the selection process, along with “a lively pedestrian environment.”

Abernathy said the PRA was also offering a $1.2 million subsidy to a developer committed to saving the original building. A $500,000 subsidy would be offered to a developer proposing demolition.

The RFP period ended in Nov. 2014 and only one proposal materialized. The PRA rejected that proposal this month.

Now, pending an assessment and report on the building’s structural and environmental hazards from the City’s office of Licenses and Inspections, the building may face demolition.

‘Cheaper to knock it down’

The single proposal was from the Philadelphia-headquartered non-profit Mission First Housing Group.

Mission First director of business development Mark Deitcher was on hand to tell attendees more about the plan, which would turn the building into 50 new one-bedroom senior-living units.

Deitcher was blunt about the costs of the initiative and the need for the tax-credit subsidy from the state, which the organization does not have in hand.

“It’s an expensive building to save. It’s cheaper to knock it down,” he said.

By a Mission First estimate, the 50,000-square-foot building would cost $200 per square foot to restore. (For the PRA’s part, Abernathy estimated the cost of stabilizing the building at $3 million — $3 million the PRA doesn’t have.)

A possible plan

The Mission First plan would fill all four floors of the old building with one-bedroom, one-bathroom modern independent senior living units. Other amenities would include a community room and a rooftop garden.

While Mission First would ultimately be the sole owner of the site, they would partner in the development phase with local developer Philly Office Retail and the adjacent Center In the Park facility, integrating new Germantown Avenue retail, restaurant and residential buildings with senior-friendly programming. 

An ‘alarming’ lack of interest

Others were more measured in their assessment.

“We are not in favor of taking a position other than saving the building,” Capita said, adding that she found it “alarming” that the PRA’s RFP yielded only one proposal.

“This is not a decision…that should be made abruptly or under pressure,” Bass said. “We don’t want to rush and take the first proposal.”

Bass iterated her two-part goal for moving forward: an up-to-date report from L&I on the actual state of the building and her commitment to listen to what the community wants for the site.

Bass also said that she had toured the building earlier that day with two independent consultants, including a former L&I commissioner, and has already received notice of two additional developers with interest in the site since the announcement of its possible demolition, though she declined to name any specifics.

Community questions

The meeting concluded with an in-depth question and answer session. The FUMCOG center aisle quickly filled with well over a dozen concerned locals who directed questions or comments to Abernathy and Deitcher.

Questions ranged from Deitcher’s commitment to the hiring of local contractors, minority inclusion, whether the PRA’s original RFP period was unduly shortened (Abernathy insisted 60 days is standard) and whether an RFP would be re-opened, and concerns of historic preservation, among many others.

“It’s very clear that folks want to save the building,” Abernathy told NewsWorks after the meeting. “But people understand that this is not an easy thing to do.”

He hopes to get back to the public with next steps for the site within a few weeks.

“I don’t know if the community understands the urgency of making this decision,” Capita said of the importance of tackling the derelict site. “We don’t want to be having this conversation two years down the road.”

A full video of the meeting will be available to view on the GUCDC website.

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